In his monumental 1662 history of the drainage of the fens, the antiquarian William Dugdale reports that outraged locals composed “libellous songs” to protest the theft of their commons. Preserving a rare specimen of this genre, Dugdale printed an anonymous ballad entitled “The Powtes Complaint.” The song adopts a non-human point of view to bewail the destruction of both the wetlands ecology and the fen-dwellers’ economy. This essay examines four different manuscripts of the ballad in the British Library, documenting their variants and commenting on their significance. It also seeks for answers to some pressing questions: when was the song written and where? What did it sound like? What socio-historical and environmental circumstances prompted its composition? How does the ballad portray the fenland ecology, and how does it compare with other seventeenth-century literary representations of the fens? What exactly is a pout? What is the nature of its complaint? And who was the person behind the song?
- Department of History, English, Linguistics and Music - Senior Lecturer
- School of Music, Humanities and Media
- Centre for International Contemporary Poetry - Member